What the honeybee sees: a review of the recognition system of Apis mellifera




Horridge, George Adrian

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Blackwell Publishing Ltd


For many years, two opposing theories have dominated our ideas of what honeybees see. The earliest proposal based on training experiments was that bees detected only simple attributes or features, irrespective of the actual pattern. The features demonstrated experimentally before 1940 were the disruption of the pattern (related to spatial frequency), the area of black or colour, the length of edge, and the angle of orientation of a bar or grating. Cues discovered recently are the range, and radial and tangential edges, and symmetry, relative to the fixation point, which is usually the reward hole. This theory could not explain why recognition failed when the pattern was moved. In the second theory, proposed in 1969, the bee detected the retinotopic directions of black or coloured areas, and estimated the areas of overlap and nonoverlap on each test pattern with the corresponding positions in the training pattern. This proposal explained the progressive loss of recognition as a test pattern was moved or reduced in size, but required that the bees saw and remembered the layout of every learned pattern and calculated the mismatch with each test image. Even so, the same measure of the mismatch was given by many test patterns and could not detect a pattern uniquely. Moreover, this theory could not explain the abundant evidence of simple feature detectors. Recent work has shown that bees learn one or more of a limited number of simple cues. A newly discovered cue is the position, mainly in the vertical direction, of the common centre (centroid) of black areas combined together. Significantly, however, the trained bees look for the cues mentioned above only in the range of places where they had occurred during the training. These two observations made possible a synthesis of both theories. There is no experimental evidence that the bees detect or re-assemble the layout of patterns in space; instead, they look for a cue in the expected place. With an array of detectors of the known cues, together with their directions, this mechanism would enable bees to recognize each familiar place from the coincidences of cues in different directions around the head.



Keywords: honeybee; vision; Apis mellifera; Apoidea Apis mellifera; Honeybee; Position finding; Visual cues



Physiological Entomology


Journal article

Book Title

Entity type

Access Statement

License Rights



Restricted until